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Sea Dogs' partnership improves accessibility

Aira app delivers interpretation services to low-vision community
July 7, 2024

PORTLAND, Maine -- Randy and Sarah Bellavance love coming to Double-A games here at Hadlock Field. This year -- the second year the diehard Portland Sea Dogs fans have had season tickets -- their local ballpark feels more welcoming than ever. The Bellavances, a married couple who are both blind,

PORTLAND, Maine -- Randy and Sarah Bellavance love coming to Double-A games here at Hadlock Field. This year -- the second year the diehard Portland Sea Dogs fans have had season tickets -- their local ballpark feels more welcoming than ever.

The Bellavances, a married couple who are both blind, typically take in the on-field sounds in front of their seats near first base while also chatting with the fans around them -- lots of whom have become friends -- while one of them listens to the Sea Dogs' radio broadcast and relays key information to the other. As much as they’ve enjoyed the gameday experience for years and years, Hadlock has become an even easier and more convenient environment via the Aira Visual Interpreter app on their phones, available for free thanks to the team's partnership with a tech company that specializes in accessibility.

“I can tell you without a doubt -- and I’m going to be honest here -- I was so proud that I was able to make it down to the ladies room on my own with Aira,” Sarah Bellavance said, “and on my own I was able to figure out how to get back. That’s something I don’t do.”

Aira’s app allows users to connect with live representatives who can utilize the phone’s camera to see the surrounding area and talk a user through, for example, finding a seat or the shortest concessions line. Users can also snap pictures and get an AccessAI-generated description.

Even for Randy, who’s been coming to the park for 25 years (compared to Sarah’s 13) and is generally more comfortable with travel than his wife, it’s made a difference.

“I’ve spent years going in and out of this stadium using just my own techniques and other people here, so what this does is primarily fill the gap and allows me to do things I couldn’t do on my own before,” he said. “It certainly improves the confidence. It takes the stress out of it.”

The Double-A affiliate of the Red Sox plays in a park that’s down the block from the headquarters of The Iris Network, a nonprofit with the mission of “helping people with vision impairment or blindness attain independence and community integration,” and which has apartments where the Bellavances and others with vision impairment live. The Sea Dogs’ staff has long taken pride in bringing the joys of Minor League Baseball to everybody, and when Aira board member Kevin Phelan emailed the club before this season, the team felt the partnership was a no-brainer.

“It’s just been a huge win for us,” said Sea Dogs director of business development Alan Barker. “It’s great for us being able to offer these services. We have a few season-ticket holders who utilize the app every time they’re here.”

Phelan, who moved to the Portland area over a decade ago to be near the Baxter School for the Deaf after his middle child didn’t pass a hearing screening, identified a need for a service like Aira’s in part through his own experience navigating the intersection of tech and accessibility.

He also realized that while federal funding has made sign language interpretation services widely available to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, there’s no such pathway for interpretation services for people who are blind or low-vision. This gap led to Aira, which offers a subscription model for things like in-home use but relies on successful partnerships with businesses and governmental agencies.

“If you look at the community in accessibility space, they’ve been told about so many new tech [products] … it’s all high-promise, and the tech is either too complicated, or it just doesn’t work,” Phelan said.

“Aira has been around for almost a decade now. Why it’s done well and why we’re the No. 1 product out there is that it’s simple and it’s tech that works. Tap a button, the phone camera turns on, and Randy and Sarah can get that information independently.”


For fans unaffected by vision issues, the leap to sporting venues might not be an obvious move for a company like Aira, which already has deals in place that provide users free service at businesses such as Starbucks, Target, Bank of America and Wegmans (and companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Salesforce all offer free Aira use to employees). The ballpark experience is, for many, largely defined by watching the action.

“The relationship between this community and sports… I’ve been blown away with how many people are blind and have a passion for sports,” said Phelan, who pointed out that his own love of baseball has been shaped in part by listening to Red Sox play-by-play broadcaster Joe Castiglione.

“I’ve attended games with people who are blind, and there are always other fans who are wondering, ‘Why are they at this game if they can’t see?’ But they’re following the game, they love the game and they know the game, and they want that experience. Aira is filling in that part of the experience where Randy wants to find his seat without going to guest services. Randy wants to find the shortest line for beer or a hot dog.”

For the Bellavances, who haven't visited Fenway Park since Randy made a somewhat overwhelming trip there before the couple met, the experience Aira has delivered at Hadlock Field invites the notion of more accessible experiences at ballparks everywhere.

“I would like to see that at every park,” Randy said. “It would be my hope that, if you have it at one level, I think eventually you’ll get it into the next. I know people who live in Washington, D.C., and Maryland who go to Washington Nationals games and they’d love to have something like that.”

In the meantime, the Sea Dogs relish having the first Minor League stadium to offer this degree of accessibility for low-vision fans. Phelan, recalling sending Portland front-office staff an email out of the blue and being met with immediate enthusiasm, is grateful for how genuine the team is in its quest to make baseball a game for everybody.

"The kids love going to games, and you think it’s a special place [even before you deal with the staff], and then you see that side of it..." he said. “It was such an authentic yes that as a local, I was just thrilled."

Josh Jackson is an editor for Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.